Erupting onto the international arthouse scene with the force of a cannonball in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, Mia Goth rapidly ascended to the highest heights of a kind of edgy art-stardom by remaining utterly faithful to two opposing principles: maximalism and restraint. Whenever Goth is on screen she radiates with a near-blinding intensity. Ferocity, pitiful helplessness, a menacing yet childlike insouciance – she alternates between harshly contrasting performative states with little effort.
Even in her earliest performances Goth seemed preternaturally at peace with her unique mixture of contradictions, and yet the key to what made screen presence so sought after was the strict, self-sublimating restraint with which she practiced role selection.
In ten years Goth has lent her talents to only 12 live-action feature films, yet she only landed her first real leading role in 2022’s Pearl. That key component of her star persona – unpredictability – is of course derived in large part from what she does with the roles she gets. But just as important are the gaps between those roles, in never being able to guess where you’ll see her next and in what fearsome image she’ll appear.
Surveying her career from the top of 2023, we find the Brazilian/Canadian/British enigma at a crossroads. Never has the public imagination been more saturated with Goth’s cherubic, browless face and “Oy Mista! You me Dad?” voice. Starring back to back in X and Pearl, lending her voice to stop-motion anthology The House, currently starring in Infinity Pool and soon to be seen in MaXXXine (the final part of Ti West’s X trilogy) all in the span of a year, we can officially pronounce Goth’s old mode of selective maximalism dead. But what comes next?
The possibilities for an actress of Goth’s talents are limitless, yet she stands facing a genre cul-de-sac that threatens to gridlock her into psycho-nymphette typecasting in perpetuity. It’s really anyone’s guess how Goth: Phase 2 plays out. There is a highly circulated image of the actress from Infinity Pool, however, whose simultaneous newness and familiarity has given me a guess of my own.
In the image, Goth is styled and made-up in a way that the actress has never quite looked before – more mature, less alien and less doll-like yet even more unhinged, lunging from the passenger seat of a convertible, gun in hand with a ferocious expression of glee carved onto her face as the homicidal actress Gabi.
For the first time, an antecedent to Goth appeared before my eyes, a luminous presence from the annals of film history whose own irreconcilable qualities – purity, perversity, an innate, human dignity and a tendency toward self-destruction – made her an irresistible star. Yet there appeared after some years a troublesome pattern that proved difficult to break: the brighter her star burned, the less her public and her critics seemed willing to tolerate the contradictions which made her so special. And so, for her, a similar crossroads appeared.
That’s Tuesday Weld, one of the most incandescent stars of the New Hollywood era and without question one of its most misunderstood. Like Goth, Weld ranked among the most widely sought-after actresses of her era, yet once she wrested control of her career from both her domineering mother and the studio which dictated her options, she appeared only selectively, never quite in what you’d expect, but always in full, startling intensity.
As though an underpainting had come to life, emerging from beneath a portrait in progress to warn it of its fate, an image of Weld seems now to rise from this image of Goth at the crossroads.
The particular image is from the cult film which, for better or worse, defines Weld’s star persona in retrospect – Pretty Poison, in which the “archetypal nymphette” character she’d been playing for decades finally cracks up. Her teenage seductress Sue Ann Stepanek rides around in a convertible with a paranoid, psychotic Anthony Perkins, manipulates him into killing her mother, and lets rip a spray of bullets from a revolver, laughing hysterically with, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of Joan Crawford, wide, hurt eyes.
The poses the actresses assume are nearly identical, despite appearing 60 years apart, and so are their respective screen personas, and resulting career trajectories. Drawing them into comparison yields a depth of insights, from where Goth’s career might be headed to where Weld’s could have gone, had her era not been so restrictive of women’s sexual expression.
Like Mia Goth, who was scouted by a modeling agency at London’s “Underage Festival” at 13, Weld started young. When her father, Lathrop Motley Weld – the disinherited failson of the elite Massachusetts Welds – died in 1947, her mother rushed Tuesday into modeling to support the family. She was four years old. In virtually every parallel you can make between Goth and Weld, the latter started younger, took more shit, and had far less freedom in her choices.
“I had a breakdown at 9, began boozing at 10, and by 12 had already attempted suicide,” Weld would tell biographer Floyd Conner in Pretty Poison: The Tuesday Weld Story. At 13 she made her screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man, and at 15 20th Century Fox signed her to a contract with the express intent of grooming her to become the “next Marilyn Monroe,” who by 1958 was already in a state of decline.
Weld would suffer for another decade under the burden of a publicity department and a momager deadset on sexualizing her all the way to superstardom. Critics referred to Tuesday in terms that ranged from upsetting – “a lovely blonde who portrays a teenage submoron to perfection” (Judith Christ) – to downright shocking: Louella Parsons once labeled Weld “a disgrace to Hollywood.”
Her onscreen Lolita-fication and offscreen anguish conspired to such a degree that when she was actually offered the role of Lolita in Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation, described by one trade as “the most sought-after juvenile role in Hollywood history,” Weld turned it down. “I didn’t have to play it,” she famously quipped. “I am Lolita.”
But Weld survived the leering onslaught of the Hollywood sex machine. Emancipating herself from both studio and familial control at 23, Weld initiated, to my mind, one of the most astonishing runs of performances of any 20th-century actor, a period which led Sam Shepherd to call her “the Marlon Brando of women.”
Beginning with 1966’s surreal meta-skewering of Weld’s own star image, Lord Love A Duck, through John Frankenheimer’s I Walk The Line and Henry Jaglom’s A Safe Place, to her crowning achievements, Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, the sex-death odyssey Looking for Mr. Goodbar, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and the brutal made-for-TV melodrama A Question of Guilt.
That Mia Goth managed to drop straight from anonymity into a film of Nymphomaniac’s caliber, a feat that took Weld over a decade, speaks to her luck, timing, and taste, sure. But the very possibility of that kind of debut, and the degree of control she’s managed to exert over her career speak to a freedom of movement that simply did not exist for actresses of Weld’s generation, particularly for those who looked like her. The Tuesday Weld story lives on as a parable of the way the industry tries to contain, rather than foster the idiosyncrasies of talented actresses. But even in a time of totalitarian studio control, Weld managed to prevail.
Goth won rapturous notices for her performance in Pearl – and they’re well-deserved. She’s just as strong in Infinity Pool, but it’s the first film that seems “aware” of the Goth persona, and to her detriment. Goth can’t help but give a fabulously free-wheeling performance, but Cronenberg squanders the subtler notes of her star persona – her fragility, her patient line delivery, her ominous silences – asking everything of her surface and nothing of her depths. But like Weld, she’s able to flood even her shallowest characters with depth.
If Infinity Pool is Mia Goth’s Pretty Poison – that is, one more iteration of a character type that feels just about exhausted – that only means she’s on the verge of breaking into something entirely new. Weld entered the richest, most experimental period in her career following Pretty Poison. If Goth goes the same route, there’s no telling what untapped potential she may access, and what masterful performances lay in store.
Published 13 Mar 2023